I’ve spent the last several years as a die-hard LeBron James fan, and by association a Cleveland Cavaliers fan, ever since I got a fist-bump from LBJ at a game. In the the wake of the LeBron Circus, however, I’m in the market for a new favorite team—and I’m chronicling my search. Maybe I’ll announce my decision on ESPN.
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Along with the Sacramento Kings, the Oklahoma City Thunder are leading the race to become my new favorite team. And there’s no mistaking why.
Kevin Durant is rad.
The Thunder have hit collective puberty as a team, transitioning out of their Rising Young Team phase and into actual Awesome Team phase. Kevin Durant is leading the way, moving himself from being Full Of Potential to being a Full-Blown Star, and somebody who will rightly challenge LeBron James for the MVP within a year or two.
Durant has always been tremendous, ever since he came out of University of Texas at 6’9”, roughly 75 pounds. And yet his 2009-2010 campaign was something special, as he upped his game and became a legitimate force on both ends of the floor. After his online scuffle with Henry Abott about Adjusted Plus/Minus, he put together one of the biggest one-year turnarounds in history: From a -8.62 rating in 2009, one of the worst in the league, to +17.75 in 2010—good enough for third-best in the NBA, behind only Dwight Howard and LeBron. He also took home the scoring title, outpacing LeBron with 30.1 points per game.
Part of what makes Durant a good player to be a fan of is his complete lack of bravado. He’s still playing the underdog role, as his team isn’t a juggernaut or ever picked to win much. One more season and it’ll be too late, but becoming a Durant/Thunder fan now won’t be jumping on a bandwagon.
It’s happened fast. Two years ago the Thunder won 23 games, then this last year they won 50—a mind-soggying improvement of 27 games. If that keeps up, they’ll win 77 games this year, and in ten years they’ll win 320 games over the course of an 82-game season. That’s going to be a team worth watching.
Hyperbole aside, it’s still easy to forget that this team did actually win 50 games. They’re that good. They had the same record as a team we’re all well familiar with—the Boston Celtics, and those guys went to the Finals.
Durant quietly signed an extension this summer, which means that his three-year rookie contract has gone up. Part of the Thunder’s maturation process is that they’re not going to be able to continue assembling an entire team of high draft picks, because they’re getting good enough that their picks are getting lower and lower in the drafta. But how remarkable is it that they took Kevin Durant one year, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka the next, and James Harden the next—and have them all being key pieces of the team?
While Kevin Durant is finally starting to get the recognition he deserves as one of the league’s few truly-elite players, his teammates still go largely under the radar. If there’s anybody in the NBA that doesn’t know about Russell Westbrook, they’re about to find out.
Westbrook made some huge improvements this past year, in just his second year in the league, upping his assists per game from 5.3 to 8.0 and boosting his assist-to-turnover ratio from 1.6 up to 2.5. His real coming out, though, was in the Thunder’s playoff series against the Lakers. Westbrook dropped 20.5 per game in the series where OKC stole two games, and stirred up the ire of Kobe Bryant enough that Kobe insisted on guarding him for games five and six.
Westbrook’s number from this past season aren’t too unlike those of Deron Williams, though with an iffier jump shot. But as his game continues to develop, Westbrook is going to be a rockstar second banana to Durant.
It’s a shame that I can’t dedicate as much space to talking about more of the Thunder supporting cast, as they deserve it. Jeff Green certainly deserves some discussion as a player that goes wildly under the radar despite being a key cog on this team (and contributing more Win Shares than Westbrook). He’s one of those tough, versatile defenders… and he also happens to put in 15 points a game. Rock on, Jeff Green.
This year they’ve added former Kansas Jayhawks center Cole Aldrich with perhaps their last lottery draft pick they’ll have in a while (and they traded to get it—thanks to GM savant Sam Presti). If he pans out he’ll be a defensive monster in the paint—Scout.com compared his size and strength to Paul Bunyan, and he looks strikingly like a sure thing. At a position where they started Nenad Krstic last year, Aldrich could eventually provide a compelling upgrade.
They’ve got offense, they’ve got defense, they’ve got a bona fide star, and they’ve even got some great underdog likeability. They’re not from LA or Boston, either. But perhaps the biggest reason that the Thunder are a frontrunner to become my new team of choice is that they look like a team that could win a title.
Maybe not right now. Maybe after Kobe’s knees give out and the Miami Heat’s unholy trinity implodes. But the Oklahoma City Thunder are built for the long run, and I could see myself coming along for the ride.
If I’m missing any important reasons why the Thunder are awesome, leave them below in the comments.